Photo credit: Tricia Koning Photography 


For this interview, we are happy to present Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein Graff, professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They are the authors of They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, one of the most widely used college composition texts in the United States. In addition, their work has had an incalculable influence on both the original version of The Critical Reader and the AP Language and Composition edition of that book. We are enormously grateful for their participation in this series.


Gerald Graff, a Professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago adn 2008 President of the Modern Language Association of America, has had a major impact on teachers through such books as Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, and, most recently, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

Cathy Birkenstein, who first developed the templates used in They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, is a Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her PhD in American literature and is currently working on a study of Booker T. Washington. Together Gerald and Cathy teach courses in composition and conduct campus workshops on writing. They live with their son, Aaron, in Chicago.



How did you come to write They Say/I Say? Did it develop organically from your teaching over an extended period, or were there specific incidents that inspired you to write it?

It was more of a slow process that developed over time in the 1990S as we compared our experiences as college teachers. What struck us most vividly at this time was our students’ widespread confusion over how to write an academic paper. To us, this confusion seemed largely unnecessary since, in our view, academic writing follows a rather conventional, elemental pattern that students could readily learn. As we thought about our own struggles with writing, and about what successful writers do, we came to believe that, despite its many moving parts, academic writing has one big constant: the move of entering a conversation, which is usually done by summarizing what other people have said or are saying about your subject and then using that summary to launch your own view, whether to agree, disagree, or some combination of both.

Somehow, we concluded, this rather simple, obvious, and time-tested formula was not getting through to our students, and this became the germ of the textbook. Our mission, as we saw it, would be to cut through the clutter of complicated writing advice that was overwhelming our students and say, in effect, “Look, we know academic writing is hard and requires a lot of work, but much of the misery and confusion will lift if you do a couple of simple things: start by summarizing something someone else has said, often in your assigned reading, and then play off that summary to say what you think.”

Another thing we realized, however, was that merely highlighting these simple steps for students wasn’t enough. Few students, we discovered, knew how to summarize and respond to others in their writing—in large part because they lacked the language for doing so that Gerald, in his book Clueless in Academe, calls “Arguespeak.” Because most students don’t read widely or aspire to be a George Orwell or a Susan Sontag, few have internalized this language’s patterns and conventions. As a result, we started looking around for some sort of explicit “how to” component to incorporate into our textbook that would give students this Arguespeak directly.

A major breakthrough came when we hit upon our templates, which would walk student writers through the steps of entering a conversation:
–Although it is often said ________________, I argue ________________.
–X argues __________. I agree and would add that _________.
One added benefit of these templates, we discovered, is that, besides helping students write, they help students read more effectively, as you point out in your SAT books.


In your experience, what are the biggest challenges for students making the transition from high school to college writing? And, conversely, what are the biggest challenges involved in teaching freshman composition?

By far the biggest challenge in teaching freshman comp is not what happens in our own classrooms, but the lack of consistency in writing instruction between all their courses, including ours. As you can tell from our answer to your first question, the two of us teach a conversational, argument-based approach to writing, but we know that it often competes with the many different approaches taken by our colleagues—both in colleges and schools. At any grade level, no matter what you tell your students about writing, it’s very likely that the other teachers they encounter will unknowingly undercut or contradict it, just as you in turn will undercut or contradict what those other teachers say. As a result, as we argue in a book we’re currently writing (Curriculum of the Absurd), students get wildly mixed messages about writing as they go from course to course. While some teachers insist that students Never use “I,” others explain that it’s fine to use “I”. While some treat good grammar and mechanics as the most important feature of academic writing, others insist that they are a trivial matter or even a hegemonic tool of Western orthodoxy. While many instructors treat academic writing and argumentation as synonymous, others insist that argument is only one type of academic writing among many, or that it is unnecessarily combative. Even those instructors who do teach argument tend to offer so many competing models of argument that students can see little if any common ground between them.

The real challenge for teaching, then, is not the difference between the high school and college levels, as your question implies—but the differences between courses within each level. Throughout the American educational system, students can’t assume that what they learn from one teacher will be honored—or even known about—by the next. As a result, instead of getting consistent writing instruction that builds cumulatively over time, students have to start over again from scratch with each new teacher they encounter. And it’s hard to learn something when you’re always having to unlearn it.


Prof Graff: In your essay “Hidden Intellectualism,” you describe your introduction to academia via sports debates, pointing out that schools often neglect to emphasize that academic writing revolves around arguments. What methods have you (both) found most effective for helping students get out of their writing comfort zones (e.g., the five-paragraph essay) and begin to see themselves as participants in a conversation?

You’ve identified another key goal of ours: to get writers to move from monological, one-voiced models of writing like the five paragraph theme to a multi-voiced model, where they engage with alternate and especially opposing perspectives in ways that force them outside their comfort zones. In the former model, writers make claims like “X is ________” or “There are many ________,” without referring to any alternate view that motivates them to make such claims. Even when the claim is backed up with lots of evidence and data, as the five paragraph-theme requires, readers are left to wonder why the writer thinks the claim needs to be made in the first place.

So we’ve developed some methods to help students actually write these challenging alternate perspectives into their writing. One such method involves giving students templates like the ones above that guide them through the steps of summarizing others’ views and answering them. Another involves asking students questions like, “What’s your ‘they say’?,” “Who would dispute what you’re arguing?,” or “What’s your as-opposed-to-what?,” questions that compel students to think contrastively, in terms of engaging opposing views, as real-world writers do.

And finally, a third method we’ve developed to point students in this dialogical direction involves pointing out most of their everyday communication is already dialogical, though they may not realize it. Even though the counter-claims students address in their academic writing often propel them into new and unexpected territory, the conversational patterns themselves of listening, summarizing, and responding to such counter-claims are ones they’ve been using their entire lives in everyday conversations about such familiar topics as popular culture and sports. Unfortunately, students rarely see that these familiar patterns are needed in academic writing because of the inconsistent, often monological way academic writing is taught. Our remedy? To convince a critical mass of faculty across the American curriculum to adopt a dialogical, argumentative model.


Over the past couple of decades, the amount of standardized testing in K-12 has skyrocketed. Do you think that this shift is having an effect on entering college students’ writing abilities and/or the way they approach the writing process?

The biggest problem we see with current standardized tests is that, instead of actually standardizing American education—that is, creating the consistency that the term “standardized” implies—they simply add more mixed messages to the already overwhelming glut of advice students receive. So, yes, we do think standardized tests are affecting K-12 students, and not in a positive way. The overwhelming number of such tests and the inconsistencies among them, we believe, simply fuel the mixed message curriculum that we’ve been complaining about above. This does not mean, however, that we’re against standardized tests per se, and we happen to be biased toward the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which emphasizes argumentation with other views and thus seems more tied than other models to college readiness skills. Until a conversational approach like the CLA becomes the norm in testing, students and faculties will continue getting pushed in so many different directions that learning, as we’ve said, is undermined.


What do you think high schools could do to prepare students more effectively for college-level writing? And what can students themselves do to prepare?

As should be obvious from our previous answers, we think students can prepare themselves for college by learning to argue dialogically, particularly in their writing. But what individual students can do figures to be limited, at least until a consensus emerges among faculty that rewards this type of argument. College readiness, in effect, needs ultimately to be tackled not just by students working alone as individuals, but by faculty at all levels working collectively, especially starting in the colleges.

But why starting in the colleges? Let us back up and explain. The schools, for far too long, have unfortunately been singled out for blame for their students not being prepared for college. But we think that the colleges are centrally to blame since, as the training-ground for K-12 educators and test-makers, the colleges have left the entire K-12 sector in the dark about what “college readiness” involves. Instead of collectively clarifying what they expect in student writing, higher education has left it up to the whims of individual instructors working in the isolation of their private classrooms. The result is mixed messages in the colleges that trickle down to the schools.

Individual students, then, can only go so far in preparing themselves for the writing challenges of college. And much the same can be said about K-12 educators and testing agencies working in isolation. Until a critical mass of educators at all levels, but starting in the colleges, comes to embrace a dialogical, argumentative model of writing, we’re likely to continue seeing students who, like the ones we described in our opening answer, show up in our college classes confused about this ever-important skill.